No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time. Get the barnacles off the boat. It was rather an obscure issue, but a few Tory MPs had been grumbling about the emails they were getting after some scaremongering from eco-activists. Thus, shortly before the 2019 General Election, the Government announced a moratorium on fracking.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business, Energy and Clean Growth Minister at the time, declared:
“Today’s decision will not in any way impact our energy supply.”
Interviewed for this site last year, Kwarteng, now Business Secretary, was unrepentant. (“Walls were shaking and plates were falling off them….we have a full democracy and all the rest of it…I think there were too many communities that were being disrupted. We’re a small country. The fact that it can work in the United States, and it works successfully, it’s what – a thousand times bigger than England?”)
The United States does have a lower population density than we do. (94 people per square mile compared to 727 people per square mile over here.) But fracking would not take up that much space. 400 well pads across the UK would be enough to reduce our gas imports by half. Each pad would be less than the size of two football pitches. So far as the wider environmental arguments are concerned, the Shale Revolution has enabled the United States to reduce its carbon emissions. Natascha Engel, who resigned after just seven months as the government’s shale gas commissioner, said that “fracked gas with half the emissions of coal” is “an essential element in any transition to a renewable future”.
The argument about energy independence was put forcefully by Andrew Neil, in the Daily Mail, on Saturday:
“All across Europe virtue-signalling politicians kowtowing to the green lobby boast of their refusal to allow any fracking for natural gas in their countries, while forgetting to mention this means pouring billions of dollars into the treasure chests of the Kremlin and Middle East despots, on whose gas we now depend. And we’re now ever so grateful to the Americans for currently shipping us billions of cubic metres of gas we need — and which the U.S. has to spare because it has fracked.”
The Americans are also able to avoid the sharp price increases for energy which we face.
The claims about earthquakes do not deserve to be taken seriously. The US has had zero evidence of any earthquake-related fatalities since substantial production of shale oil and shale gas got underway there in 2011.
If the Government was genuinely worried about the “earthquakes” (really just tremors equivalent of a lorry driving past your house) then why has it done nothing to thwart the “testing to extract heat, power and lithium from deep geothermal waters in Cornwall” reported in the Sunday Telegraph which have caused equivalent vibrations? Perhaps because those endeavours are counted as “green”?
Kwarteng probably knows all this. So it really comes down to the politics – the signs that, however unjustified, the scaremongering has worked. But having taken some soundings from councillors in Lancashire, where there is huge potential for shale, I don’t think that opposition is necessarily the “settled will” of local inhabitants. Few noticed the supposed “earthquakes” – much less suffered any damage. Cuadrilla, the firm undertaking shale exploration, offered compensation for any damage caused but insurance assessments of the small number of claims found scant evidence of any.
The “plates falling off walls” that Kwarteng mentioned usually turned out to be apocryphal. Perhaps if Kwarteng scoured Little Plumpton in Fylde he might triumphantly discover a piece of crockery chipped in allegedly suspicious circumstances. But even if he did so, he should set that misfortune against the deaths each year from hypothermia – ‘the primary cause of cold-related death’, according to one government analysis and the 25,000 excess winter deaths in England and Wales that we see on average each year. This winter has been mercifully mild. But what impact on hypothermia will there be next winter – due to the needless doubling of energy bills? What will be the impact in future years if the Government’s flawed policy is maintained?
In contrast to the supposed risks, the economic benefits to Lancashire from shale development would most likely prove considerable. A genuine opportunity for “levelling up”. However, supporters of fracking are nervous about speaking out for fear of being confronted by vociferous and militant opponents. One of them told me:
“What is to be gained by speaking out and getting a lot of hassle? We probably are the silent majority. There’s a reason we are silent.”
Would a referendum be the answer? Allow the voters of Lancashire to decide whether or not fracking should be allowed. Rely on the clash of democratic debate to subject the claims and counter-claims to proper scrutiny. Cross-party campaigns could be designated for both sides with a booklet for each household giving space to each side. Debates could be held on regional TV and radio stations. Other referendums could be held in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire or anywhere else that there is proven potential for shale development.
To be meaningful, there should be some kind of agreement between the Government, Lancashire County Council, and the shale industry, as to the terms to be offered. It would be understandable if Cuadrilla and other firms were hesitant. Thus far, they have found Her Majesty’s Government as resilient as a chocolate teapot. The deal could include fast-tracking the planning process and full compensation if a future Government banned fracking for political reasons. It would need to specify the level of tremors that would be allowed – 4.0 Richter scale limit is allowed in the United States. Then the industry might consider what incentives it would offer Lancastrians. What about a £100 Council Tax discount for ten years in the boroughs where fracking took place and a further £50 a year for the whole county? What about a few million for environmental projects such as planting trees and cleaning beaches?
If the Government and county council were feeling timid, they could still remain neutral in the referendum – merely offering the proposal as one that was practical and acceptable to proceed with, should that be the wish of the majority.
Even if only one county voted to allow fracking that would probably be transformational for our energy supply. If, after a few years, none of the supposed hazards materialised then other parts of the country might well agree to follow.
If we had bold national leadership, then our shale industry in this country would be well-established by now. Given that we do not, then surely local democracy is the way to resolve the matter. Let the people decide. Who could object to that?